Kids’ Music Goes Global

What In The World?
Kids’ Music Goes Global
by Bill Childs

(c) Hilltown Families - Robbi K at Brooklyn HootenannyDan Zanes caused a stir a few months ago by noting the overwhelming whiteness of a particular national parenting magazine. (I won’t mention which magazine, because the criticism is pretty fairly addressed to almost any of them.) His point, which is a sound one, is that a “healthy, inclusive, celebratory society is, I think, where the music flourishes.” Well said, Mr. Zanes.

With that in mind, think for a moment about your local record store’s kids’ section. (First, pretend that you still have a local record store, and in the unlikely event that you do, pretend that it has a kids’ section with more than four copies of The Hamster Dance.) What does this record section look like?

I bet your imaginary local record store’s imaginary kids’ section is filled mostly with white musicians. They’re playing tremendously diverse styles of music, no doubt, but they’re not from particularly diverse backgrounds. There are some exceptions, and many of the stars of kids’ music have worked with amazing artists of color (notably Zanes, but also AudraRox and many others), but a disproportionate number look a lot like, well, me. Which is to say: white (particularly after a long, dark winter).

So this month, I’d like to point out just a handful of the many great modern artists of color, both from within the United States and from all around the world, who produce excellent kids’ music. This is just a sampler (obviously); please e-mail me for more.

Putumayo Records

Any discussion of world music for kids has to start with Putumayo’s catalog. The label offers a tremendous range of music for grownups, and its “Playground” series brings the world, and the rest of the United States, to your kids’ CD player. These CDs go beyond foreign-language translations of kids’ songs you already know. Instead, they include songs from some of the best performers around the world playing kids’ songs (classic and modern) from their cultures. Plus, the liner notes – with translations and background information on each of the songs and artists – are a great educational resource (the label offers ancillary materials for teachers). We’re partial to Latin Playground and African Playground, but really, you can’t go wrong with any of them. If you just want a sampler, Putumayo’s two World Playground CDs will give you a great flavor, as will the forthcoming Animal Playground.

Robbi K

Robbi KRobbi Hall Kumalo grew up in rural Long Island and became a professional musician. After looking for kids’ music for her daughters (she’s married to Paul Simon’s bassist Bakithi Kumalo), she found that the list of African-American women recording children’s music largely started and ended with the legendary Ella Jenkins (who would be on this list if I didn’t think you already know her). Robbi made that list longer with her own releases, including the infectious Set it Free and Keep the Beat and her new album, out in May, Music Makes Me Happy, which promises to be a great leap forward. Her music takes bits from all around the world, but she never sounds out of her element, whether evoking traditional American folk music, Zulu rhythms, or reggae. It all adds up to pure joy. We just saw her live and in just one song, the entire room – filled with people who have seen a lot of music – was transported.

Happy Monster & Friends

The first CD from this group, Rhythm with Rhymes, is aimed a bit younger than the other CDs mentioned this month. It’s largely made up of standard kids’ songs (Old McDonald, Baby Bumblebee, etc.) performed in a Caribbean style. In a lot of cases, that could be, frankly, terrible. But the sheer fun of the CD washes away any cynicism and will get your preschooler moving.


Trinidad-born performer Asheba blends calypso, reggae, and various other genres on his most recent album, Children are the Sunshine. What really sets him apart is the liveliness of his studio recordings: even if he recorded a track in a windowless basement room, you still feel like you’re at Carnival (a kid-friendly Carnival, mind you). He was featured on the Kidzapalooza stage at last year’s Lollapalooza, and will be touring this summer on a tour put together by Putumayo Kids. If he’s that much fun on CD, I can only imagine the delight of seeing him live.

About the author:
Bill Childs is a law professor in western Massachusetts and contributing writer for Hilltown Families. He and his eight-year-old daughter produce a kids’ music radio show, “Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child,” weekly; check it out at Contact him at and tell him other artists he should know about.

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